HE STARTED with a couple of jokes, calling yesterday's press conference "a great birthday present," then brought down the house when asked how he found out he would be starting against the Cardinals.

"The janitor told me," Donovan

McNabb said. "Me and him have a pretty good relationship."

Extract from that what you will. Maybe it was a shot at the head coach for benching him through a surrogate Sunday. Later, McNabb would claim the relationship between he and head coach Andy Reid, "is where it was and where it should be," but even that seemed to purposely leave a ton of area for interpretation.

This we know, the day after he turned 32 years of age:

He has not been in this spot before, never operated with as short of a leash as he has now.

Not in his professional career, not in his years at Syracuse, not in Pop Warner.

"Never," he said.

At every level, McNabb has won the job and kept the job until he moved to a bigger, better job. At every level, including this one, he has excelled at the job. Five Pro Bowls, people, four NFC Championship game appearances, a Super Bowl, too. He has lost the job at times due to injury, but never ineptness. Not until now.

Is he a bad game away? A bad half away? The discussion about whether Kevin Kolb should be the Eagles quarterback has been replaced this week by a discussion of when. The bittersweet irony of it all is that many who want Kolb to be that guy think it's unfair to throw him into the offense that McNabb is expected to operate efficiently.

"I wouldn't even look at it as if I'm on a short leash," said McNabb. "I don't think that's a way of looking at it. I think a lot of people can make assumptions of what happened in the past game. But I look at it as just me going out and playing football and just doing what I'm supposed to be doing at the position. And then everything else will take care of itself."

Once that might have been true. Once this team went as McNabb went, but not now. This is Brian Westbrook's team now, probably has been since before the Eagles were within a play of the NFC Championship game with Jeff Garcia subbing for an injured McNabb.

But Westbrook, with a bad ankle sprain and a knee that has to be drained every week, is not Westbrook right now. And McNabb, trying to fill that void with a suspect cast in the skill positions, has instead sabotaged the team with indecisiveness and poor throws.

Seven interceptions in his last four games. Throws that sail a mile too high, a mile too short, a mile too low. Waiting too long to throw. Waiting too long to take off downfield. Running too slow when he does.

"You see the things that have happened, and it's uncharacteristic of me," McNabb said. "I know that. It's something you have to battle through playing the position. Not everyone goes through a perfect season. Some guys go through a little drought in the beginning and some go through it in the end. It's unfortunate that I'm going through it right now but it's easy to bounce back from it."



"If you're a little off, you keep shooting. That's the way I feel you get out of a little drought. You just keep firing and things are going to turn out for the better. That's going to be my approach.

"But also still going in with a little different mindset to taking care of the ball. But it's going to be nothing to the fact where I'm going to be gun-shy or anything. Just keep taking care of the ball and having fun in the process."

McNabb's analysis seems as all over the map as his throws have been. How does he keep firing and take care of the ball? How does he keep firing knowing that two first-half picks put him on the bench last Sunday and two first-half picks may do the same this week, maybe even end his career here? How does he keep firing to Greg Lewis, or Reggie Brown, or, bless his overachieving soul, Dan Klecko?

How can that be fun?

"You show trust in the guys," he said. "You put the ball in the air you expect them to bring it down."

And if they don't? Or if it sails too high or too low again? Well then, that might have been McNabb's last podium press conference yesterday, on his 32nd birthday.

Happy birthday indeed.

"The janitor will be in here next," McNabb joked as he walked toward the door.

Cleanup, on Aisle 5. *

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